Living off the Land

August 12, 2009

One of my ancestors, Jeremiah Leeds (1754 – 1838), was a master when it came to living off the land.

The following is from “The Daily Union History of Atlantic City and County” by John F. Hall, Published 1900:

Jeremiah Leeds (1754 – 1838), the first permanent (white) settler on this island, so far as known, like many of his fellow-countrymen one hundred years ago, was a man of stalwart mould. He stood six feet in height and weighed fully two hundred and fifty pounds and was a Quaker. There is no evidence that he left the Quaker neighborhood at Leeds Point and came to this island to live permanently previous to 1783, when he was twenty-nine years old. He built his first log cabin and cleared away the field where it stood. He raised several crops of corn and rye and became thoroughly familiar with the very great abundance of wild ducks and geese and many kinds of sea fowl which then were tame and plenty, but are now rarely seen. He no doubt experienced the great pest of mosquitoes where there were so many ponds and swamps among the sand hills, and assisted as a wrecker in those days when many vessels with valuable cargoes were lost on the Brigantine shoals. It is difficult in these days to fully appreciate the advantages and the disadvantages which this stretch of beach afforded a young man who seems to have had no aspirations for political honors, but had his way in the world. The records at Trenton show, that he had risen to be First Lieutenant in Captain Joseph Covenover’s Sixth Company, Third Battalion, Gloucester County Militia, his commission bearing the date of September 18, 1777.

For fifty-five years this stalwart son of the Revolution lived on this lonely island and prospered, occupying log cabins till a more pretentious frame structure could be built in his old age. He raised cattle and grain and sold to passing vessels his surplus products and was under but little expense for taxes or the luxuries of life.

He was careful to build brush fences along the beach to catch the sand and build up the sand-hills to keep high tides out of the fresh water ponds so necessary for the wild fowl which comprised an important part of his food supply. He disliked to have sportsmen trespass upon his estate, though he always granted permission to shoot game under certain restrictions when he was asked.

He was particular to keep away from his sand-hills the cattle and horses which owners on the mainland brought over here in the summer to pasture. If the grass were eaten off, the sand-hills would blow away, which was detrimental to his policy of building up the island. The big sand-hills, which many now living can remember, were the result of the care and vigilance of patriarch Leeds, the original proprietor.

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In case you’re wondering why a Quaker fought in the Revolutionary War (against the Society of Friends teachings of non-violence), we need only consider this additional information provided by Mr. Hall.

Jeremiah Leeds, in his old age, used to tell the story of a visit which his father, John Leeds, received one day from foraging Redcoats, just before the Revolution.

A British vessel entered Great Bay in full view from Leeds Point. Two barges with soldiers and sailors came ashore for fresh meat. The captain ordered the Quaker farmer to drive up his cattle which were grazing in the meadows nearby. This was done, where upon two fat steers were selected from the herd and quickly knocked in the head, their bodies quartered, loaded on wagons and taken to the barges and to the ship.

“All right. That’s all,” was the farewell greeting of the captain to the farmer, who considered himself lucky in losing so little by the uninvited visitors. The steers happened to be the personal property of Jeremiah and his brother, and were worth perhaps at that time six or eight dollars per head. This event had its effect in making a soldier of a Quaker boy in the war of the Revolution which soon followed.

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Another ‘by the way’, the island that Jeremiah occupied is now better known as Atlantic City.

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Sadly, Jeremiah was part of a tiny minority of humans who tried to take care of the land upon which their lives depended. Over the centuries, industrialists and others have taken a far different approach.

For example, starting in the 1600’s, wealthy men decided that ivory billiard balls were far superior to their wooden and clay predecessors. The best source of ivory at the time was the tusks of elephants. And the only way to get the tusk of an elephant was to kill the beast.

Over the next couple of hundred years, thousands of elephants were destroyed so that their ivory tusks could be ‘harvested’. The tusks were the only things carried away by the hunters; the bodies were left to rot where they lay.

One might think that humans eventually came to their senses and recognized the evil of slaughtering innocent animals so men of wealth could strike ivory balls with wooden sticks. That wasn’t it at all. The truth is that the manufacturers of the billiard balls recognized that the world was running low on elephants. For them to remain in business, they had to find a substitute material.

Obviously, animal life has often been seen as insignificant. The great American Buffalo slaughter was not caused by the population’s insatiable appetite for Bison steaks. On the contrary, humans wanted the hides. The leather was perfect for machine belts during the Industrial Revolution, and the winter coats of the animals worked well for winter coats for humans.

The meat of the animals was left to rot much like the elephant’s carcasses.

And the blame cannot be laid at the feet of men like Buffalo Bill Cody. The animals he shot were used to feed the armies of railroad workers.

In truth, the first people to slaughter Buffaloes for the skins were the American Indians who sold the hides to the white businessmen.

I’ve heard of numerous complaints about air and water quality in the United States. Perhaps growing up in Pittsburgh gives me a different perspective.

When I was a lad, people used their headlights during the day and mothers hung their wash in the basement to keep it clean while it dried. Very few people fished in the three rivers because of all the chemical pollutants.

Today, the air is much cleaner and the rivers have become a sportsman’s paradise with trout, pike, bass, and many other species being caught on a regular basis.

Our country has done a tremendous job in reducing pollution. Is there more that needs to be done? Of course, but things are so much better than they were.

I guess you’d have to see how bad it was before you could recognize how much better it is.

As for the senseless killing of animals… unfortunately, the slaughter continues. Poachers are killing mountain gorillas so people can have vases made out of their feet, elephants are still being killed for their tusks, sharks are killed for their fins, bears for their livers, and so on.

It’s very similar to the drug trade. As long as there is someone with a wad of money willing to buy these items, men will kill innocent animals so they can feed their families.

We, as humans, have a tendancy to look the other way to avoid seeing the evils in this world. Besides, we have to keep up with the lives and deaths of people like Michael Jackson and the next American Idol. Those things are far more important.


The Funny Pages – Gone but not Forgotten

May 14, 2009

Yesterday I wrote about the pollution of my childhood and how the U.S. has done such a great job of cleaning our air and water.

This morning I received an email that reminded me of some other things from my childhood that have quietly slipped away… the comic strips I eagerly awaited every Sunday morning.

I recall a story about a former mayor of New York City, Fiorello LaGuardia, who read the Sunday funnies over the radio during a newspaper delivery strike in 1945. I’ve searched the Internet for supporting evidence to the story I heard many years ago, but could not find direct evidence.

Thus, I cannot attest to the truth. However, it does sound reasonable that a man would read the funnies at the end of his weekly radio address. Then, believing his microphone was no longer turned on, say something like, “That should hold the little (expletive deleted) for another week.”

In Pittsburgh we didn’t have a mayor to read the funnies to us. So we took turns reading them to ourselves. Fortunately, when my closest brother and I were at the age of fighting over things, there were two sections of comics. We’d each take one, read it, and then swap.

Now that I think about it, I believe we had two Sunday papers delivered to our home – the Pittsburgh Press and the Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph. That might explain the separate sections.

Some of the comic strips we read are still around today, but I’m going to concentrate on the ones that are long gone.

The one that was mentioned in that email I received was “Smokey Stover” who was a fireman noted for saying nonsensical things. The fun of that strip was looking for the minor details. The artist would label various items in humorous ways making the story line simply one part of the total humor.

“Gasoline Alley” was somewhat similar, but my memory isn’t good enough to support my thoughts.

There were two strips that made fun of hillbillies. I can’t say for sure which was more popular, but there was a stage play (and perhaps a movie) based on “Lil’ Abner”. Al Capp, the creator of Abner Yokum, Pappy and Mammy (Pansie) Yokum, Daisy Mae, Sadie Hawkins, Marrying Sam, and the other denizens of  Dogpatch, may have gotten bored drawing the same characters week after week. At times he’d take us into the daydreams of Lil’ Abner and we’d follow the adventures of Fearless Fosdick. At other times, he’d bring in the Schmoos who would be whatever humans wanted them to be.

As I recall, Abner usually saw them as country hams or pork chops.

The other parody on hillbillies was Snuffy Smith and his family. Snuffy usually had a jug of white lightning and was more than open to the idea of his wife doing all the chores.

“Priscilla’s Pop” was the only man I ever heard of who took mashed potato sandwiches in his lunch every day. It seems that family was always looking for ways to save money and Priscilla was always finding ways for that money to be spent… paying for the damages she’d done.

There were a number of other characters that seem to have faded away. “Little Lulu”, “Little Iodine”, “Henry”, and “The Little King” are all but forgotten as are “The Katzenjammer Kids” and “Felix the Cat”.

All of the comic strips mentioned so far were meant to be funny. However, there was another group that were designed to be dramatic. I think of them as the soap operas of the newspapers.

It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a complete Sunday comics section. Some of these might still be in existence.

“Brenda Starr”, “Terry and the Pirates”, “Smiling Jack”, “Prince Valiant”, “The Phantom” and “Dick Tracy”. If I’m not mistaken, Fearless Fosdick was a take-off of Dick Tracy.

There was one strip that was destined to die from its inception – which means it’s probably still running in some papers. “Dondi” was about a little boy who was orphaned during World War II and adopted by an American GI. If the creator of the strip allowed the boy to age, he’d be collecting Social Security by now and probably no longer be seen as a cute little boy in an over-sized Army uniform.

I’m sure I’ve overlooked some other old time comic strips. If I skipped your favorite, use the comments link below to tell me about it. I enjoy being reminded of those relics of my childhood.


Pollution – Gone With the Past

May 13, 2009

Whenever I hear someone complain about the pollution in this country I wish I had a time-machine so I could take them back to my childhood.

The confluence

The confluence

Pittsburgh is known for its three rivers. For many people, the thought process ends there. However, those of us who lived in the area know that there are many creeks and streams that add to the volume of those mighty waters.

Chartiers Creek was within walking distance of my home in Crafton Heights and we were given strict orders to stay away from it. Of course, that meant we’d go and play along its banks every chance we got.

I don’t think my parents were worried about us drowning so much as being contaminated by the filth that flowed through that creek bed. It was a mixture of raw sewage and chemicals that killed the heartiest of fish. Its waters had a similar effect when they finally emptied into the Ohio River.

We boys called it Turd-le Creek so it wouldn’t be confused with the Turtle Creek that flowed in another area of Western Pennsylvania. My guess is that Turtle Creek wasn’t much cleaner than Chartiers Creek and the many other streams in the Pittsburgh area.

Then there was the smoke. Pittsburgh long held the title “Old Smokey” for obvious reasons. The steel mills belched thick black smoke almost twenty-four hours a day. Added to that pollution was the smoke from the coke furnaces found throughout the area, the slag dump, and all the coal fired furnaces in the homes, schools, and many businesses.

Most women used clothes lines hung in their cellars rather than hang their clean clothes outside where they’d get dirty before they had a chance to dry. And motorists had to use their headlights in the middle of the day.

We grew up breathing that air and never gave it a second thought.

Fortunately, there were people who recognized the danger and forced the city to clean up its act. People like my parents were given deadlines to replace their coal burning furnaces with natural gas furnaces… or face heavy fines. Mills were given similar ultimatums. By the mid fifties, headlights were no longer needed during the day and laundry began appearing on clotheslines outside.

Litter was another major problem during my childhood… and it wasn’t confined to Pittsburgh. Candy wrappers, empty potato chip bags, and many other wrappings were simply dropped on the ground once they were emptied.

As a young boy looking for spending money, those who threw their empty bottles on the ground were greatly appreciated. We could collect two cents deposit for each twelve ounce bottle and five cents for each larger bottle. Considering it cost only thirty-five cents to get into the movies, it didn’t take long to gather enough bottles to pay for the pop corn as well.

Looking back, the thing I find most appaling is something my parents did when we vacationed in South Jersey. When our garbage can got filled to capacity, we’d drive through the salt marshes and toss the bags of trash out of the car windows into the marsh.

I don’t know if we did that because there was no place to take it – which was most likely at least partially true, or if there was somewhere to take it, but we couldn’t afford to pay for its disposal. All I know is that in hindsight, it was a terrible thing to do.

Unfortunately, there are folks out there who continue to do such things. I’ve often driven along country roads and seen trash that was obviously tossed from a moving vehicle.

Like the poor, I believe litterbugs will always be with us. All we can do is make sure we don’t add to the problem.

I almost forgot to mention the main point of this article. That is – no bad people might think the pollution is in the United States, it is nothing like what it was sixty years ago.

Those rivers in Pittsburgh held very few living things when I was a lad. Today, there are all sorts of game fish and every one of them is safe to eat. As for Chartiers Creek, it looks more like a clear mountain stream.

Pittsburgh has come a long way, and so have all the other parts of our country. Perhaps we can pass the lessons we’ve learned on to China, India, and a few other countries that have yet to learn we are only borrowing this planet.